Apr 22 2014

Motivated Memory

I have had the following experience many times, and so I suspect that it is a near-universal experience. You are in a heated conversation with one or more other people who have differing opinions on the topic of discussion. Perhaps it’s just a fight over personal matters. After the heat has died down and calmer emotions prevail, you try to come to some sort of resolution about the prior conversation. Such efforts, however, are complicated by the fact that everyone has a very different memory of the conversation you just shared.

A related experience that is also common occurs when discussing a topic about which there is disagreement (such as politics), and then revisiting the topic weeks or months later. Again, everyone has a different memory of the prior discussion, including which facts were established. It’s almost as if the previous conversation had not taken place.

It’s as if everyone edits their memories to fit their existing narrative. In this way, memory can be a very dangerous thing – it gives us a false confidence in our current beliefs and attitudes. We believe the facts support our position. However, we often choose our facts based on our narrative, rather than craft a narrative based upon facts.

We tend to easily see this process in others, but of course often fail to see it in ourselves.

As an aside, this is perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the internet, combined with smartphones. Now, during a conversation and in real time, I can look up a reference to establish a fact, rather than just relying on everyone’s edited memories.

A newly published study sheds further light on this common experience of dueling memories. The researchers wanted to explore the effect of in-group vs out-group status on memories of wartime atrocities. Specifically, they looked at memories of stories of atrocities committed by either American or Afghan soldiers.

Subjects were given written stories about atrocities committed by either side, including a justification for their actions. After a distraction period they then watched a video in which some of the stories were repeated, but without the justification. Following another distraction period they were then asked questions about the stories.

As predicted by the researchers, Americans were more likely to remember the justifications for the actions of American soldiers than they were for Afghan soldiers.

Previous research has clearly established that humans are tribal – we think in terms of in-group and out-group. We can show tremendous altruism and compassion towards members of our in-group, while simultaneously displaying callous cruelty toward members of an out-group. History provides many examples – in extreme cases out-groups can be entirely dehumanized, allowing for unlimited cruelty.

Another way to look as this is through cognitive dissonance. It is likely that many Americans have a narrative that we are the good guys and the Taliban are the bad guys. A story about American atrocities is at odds with that narrative, causing cognitive dissonance, while stories about Afghan atrocities is compatible with our narrative. The cognitive dissonance is relieved by a justification for the bad behavior – they had to torture that captured soldier because he had information about an upcoming attack which could harm civilians.

It makes sense that we would hold onto those cognitive dissonance-relieving facts and remember them. Meanwhile, justifications for the behavior of the other guys is of no emotional value, and in fact may cause a bit of cognitive dissonance, depending on how strong our narrative is about them being the bad guys.

All of this gets filed under the general phenomenon of confirmation bias – we tend to notice and remember details that support our existing narrative, and miss, forget, or explain away details which contradict our existing narrative.

So we have cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, in-group-out-group bias, and selective memory all conspiring together in this study.

The important thing to keep in mind is that this is our everyday experience. Such biases and more are in effect at all times, and not just in other people, but in ourselves (that is the hardest thing to remember). Just knowing that such biases exist is helpful, but not sufficient to erase their influence (that rationalization is particularly insidious).

It takes effort and cognitive work to step back from our immediate reactions and analyze our thought processes for potential bias. Psychologists call this metacognition – thinking about thinking. It can, and should be, a life-time project.

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27 responses so far

27 Responses to “Motivated Memory”

  1. catplanet24on 22 Apr 2014 at 10:00 am

    Thanks, Steve.

    This is one of the most frustrating things in Skepticism , IMHO. Otherwise rational people about pseudoscience and the supernatural forget that they themselves are subject to the same sorts of cognitive biases, particularly when it comes to the things they care the most about.

    It’s true for liberals, it’s true for conservatives; it’s true for socialists, it’s true for libertarians. Most of them literally think that everyone else is an “idiot”, except for those holding to their own ideology.

    Ideology, regardless of the side, can be just as dangerous as religion.

  2. Ori Vandewalleon 22 Apr 2014 at 11:40 am

    Another advantage of the internet is that it maintains a record of previous discussions. I often find myself reviewing old discussions I’ve had and evaluating the quality of my arguments. Sometimes I fare well, other times not so much. But in addition, I can look back and verify what it was that was actually said. It’s a good check on your personal narrative, because it can reveal that you haven’t always believed X, or that you sometimes behave Y.

  3. Newcoasteron 22 Apr 2014 at 11:57 am

    Great post and a reminder that we all are subject to the same biases and logical fallacies that we spend so much time pointing out in others.

    I do debate and argue with people in person when the occasion rises, but I much prefer to do it online, so I can check my facts, insert references where needed, and there’s a record of who said what. (Also, I’m a bit of an introvert and hate confrontation, unlike my wife whom I’ve had to drag away from political arguments at parties before punches were thrown lol )

    It’s also interesting to look at past discussions/arguments to see if my views have changed.

  4. Xplodyncowon 22 Apr 2014 at 6:19 pm

    We tend to easily see this process in others, but of course often fail to see it in ourselves.

    What causes our own blind spots? Would it paralyze us (i.e., make survival difficult) if we were able to observe ourselves as we observe others? Spotting my own flawed thinking, especially before someone else calls me out on it, seems like a useful ability, but maybe evolution would disagree.

  5. Bill Openthalton 23 Apr 2014 at 4:15 am

    catplanet24 –

    Ideology, regardless of the side, can be just as dangerous as religion.

    Religions are ideologies. The subject reflects the concerns of the period in which they were established, but the mechanisms by which they are imprinted on the human brain are the same.

  6. Johnnyon 23 Apr 2014 at 7:03 am

    “Previous research has clearly established that humans are tribal – we think in terms of in-group and out-group.”

    Doesn’t this apply to skeptics as well? Or do you think skeptics can transcend this instinct?

  7. Ori Vandewalleon 23 Apr 2014 at 7:38 am

    Given that Steven opens the post by describing the problem as it applies to him, I’m sure he thinks skeptics can fall prey to the same biases.

  8. The Other John Mcon 23 Apr 2014 at 8:12 am

    We all tend to be tribal, but the real trick seems to be who we count as our “in-group” versus who falls into our “out-group” classification. This seems to be a malleable feature. Reminds me of a famous book which argues that moral and social progress for humanity has proceeded by continually re-defining who falls into the in-group, represented by an ever-widening, expanding circle of our “in-group”:

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Expanding-Circle-Evolution-Progress/dp/0691150699

    It is at least an intriguing idea. It would nicely explain why humanity all joined together to fight the aliens in “Independence Day” but fails to explain why the humans won’t band together to fight zombies in “The Walking Dead.” :-P

  9. Johnnyon 23 Apr 2014 at 8:54 am

    @The Other John Mc: Wouldn’t that be a case on enlarging one’s tribe rather than the disappearance of tribalism altogether?

  10. The Other John Mcon 23 Apr 2014 at 9:08 am

    I wouldn’t necessarily guess that tribalism would ever disappear completely, even with a totally expanded circle. We always seem to want to put someone in the slot in our head that says “outgroup” which is why if aliens attacked, we’d all be banding together because aliens would become the new outgroup, and all humans would fall into the ingrouop. Once the aliens are defeated (due to human viruses or exposure to Justin Bieber), we could go back to hating eachother and being pissed about Republicans and/or Democrats being the one true enemy and such.

  11. The Other John Mcon 23 Apr 2014 at 9:11 am

    Look how easily in-group/out-group thinking is switched on with team sports (even if one is not a member of the team). People will even do “us vs. them” thinking (and show disturbing behaviors) based on completely arbitrary and random group assignment (i.e., coin flips).

  12. Npsychdocon 23 Apr 2014 at 10:18 am

    This post, particularly the concepts of selective memory and confirmation bias, tie in well with the literature on what likely maintains a “prolonged post-concussive syndrome” (PCS) following a single uncomplicated concussion/mTBI. I’ve wondered about a further contribution of in-group vs out-group thinking with this population, given what appears to be a growing divide between those who cater to (and often make significant $$ from) PCS and those who, IMO, draw conclusions from good scientific literature on the natural history of concussion/mTBI.

    This is perhaps off topic from the original post, and no doubt I’m compelled to offer my opinions within a certain in-group narrative. Nonetheless I thought this post is readily applicable to the topic of PCS.

  13. Bill Openthalton 23 Apr 2014 at 10:43 am

    The Other John Mc –

    Differences in the scope of the in-group explain animal rights movements. These people feel more kinship/connection with the animals they attempt to protect than unknown humans. It would seem that humans need flexible in-group/out-group definitions to enable collaboration without pre-established connections (e.g. genetics). The flexibility is sufficient to allow the inclusion of non-human entities, as well as the exclusion of humans.

  14. Bruceon 23 Apr 2014 at 12:13 pm

    Bill,

    Seems like you just explained why we have furries…

    In essence, we need to stay within our group to enable us to work together and survive, but genetically we need to mix up the pot a bit, so there is flexibility built in to allow for this?

  15. Bill Openthalton 23 Apr 2014 at 1:34 pm

    Bruce –

    One of the most (if not the most) remarkable achievement of humanity is the creation of huge (hundreds of millions of members) societies of cooperating individuals. The only other species that come close are ants, termites and bees, but in all these cases the members are genetically identical and adapted to specific roles. Humanity manages to to this with generic, genetically diverse individuals, who combine personal and societal priorities. We also manage to use the specific qualities of individuals to have them take roles (such as defense, engineering etc), and even manage to communicate across generations.

    I think that flexibility in composing and re-composing groups is one of the cornerstones of this ability. Humans switch groups several times per day, and even display different specialisations depending on the groups they are with. In my opinion, self-awareness is a side effect of the ability to communicate detailed information on our internal state (how we feel, what we know etc) to other humans.

  16. Kerry Maxwellon 23 Apr 2014 at 3:23 pm

    Now, during a conversation and in real time, I can look up a reference to establish a fact, rather than just relying on everyone’s edited memories.

    I find it amusing that this is a widely despised behavior. People tend to treat it as a threat to the group if you are introducing information that contradicts their tribal narrative.

  17. Bill Openthalton 23 Apr 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Kerry –

    Why spoil a tasty opinion with bitter facts? :-)

  18. MikeBon 23 Apr 2014 at 6:31 pm

    To me, this in-group/out-group thing is one of the most interesting topics, ever.

    Sure, skeptics could fall into such thinking. But luckily skeptics would tend to be skeptical of it. ;]

    I see the dynamic all the time with the “organic” farming movement. I was once associated with it, worked at an organic farm (great job), became disillusioned once I discovered how potent the religious overtones of the movement are. There’s a lot of outright superstition over such issues as genetic modification, “chemicals,” and pesticides.

    They are so embedded in their in-group, holy/sacred/ritually-clean mind-set that they’ve even imagined an out-group to flog, a straw man called “conventional farming.”

    There are no “conventional farmers.” There is no “conventional” farmers’ movement, no “conventional” standards, no “conventional” techniques.

    There’s just “organic,” and everyone else, whom they happen to deride as “conventional.” It is a term like “gentile” or “pagan” or “infidel”: Those Who Are Not Us.

  19. tmac57on 23 Apr 2014 at 7:13 pm

    Bill Openthalt said

    Why spoil a tasty opinion with bitter facts?

    This should be a meme if it isn’t already. Nice Bill :)

  20. Bruceon 24 Apr 2014 at 4:25 am

    Not sure if we have ever had an SGU quote come from a commenter in this blog before, but Bill’s comment should definitely be one.

  21. steven johnsonon 24 Apr 2014 at 9:15 am

    It is usually reported that people with strong convictions who confront opposing arguments against
    their cherished opinions simply intensify their commitment.

    Do skeptics assert that this is true? That it is not just an artifact produced by reluctance to concede in an argument? A product of the fallacy fallacy, i.e., the illogical conclusion that finding one error refutes a complex argument? That there is no such thing as a “gotcha” argument?

    Also, do skeptics deny on principle that one “side” may be proven wrong, given the cognitive biases?
    That no single answer can be conclusively asserted? That the impossibility of finding correct positions implies that people should never be confrontational? That asserting there is a single “truth” to find betrays arrogance?

  22. tmac57on 24 Apr 2014 at 10:54 am

    Steven Johnson, I would say most skeptics accept that there are valid,objective truths to be discovered or known,and deny that everybody’s truths are equally valid.
    Now that doesn’t mean that it is always easy to know what is the objective truth,so that is where science,critical thinking and rationality come together to give us tools to overcome our human cognitive shortcomings.
    If everything were true,then we would not have the need for the words: know,truth,false,fact,lie, wrong,right…you get the idea.
    If your point is that the world is complicated and nuanced,then yeah,I think as a whole,skeptics understand that better than the average bear. That’s my opinion at least.

  23. Bill Openthalton 24 Apr 2014 at 7:11 pm

    Steven Johnson –

    Also, do skeptics deny on principle that one “side” may be proven wrong, given the cognitive biases?
    That no single answer can be conclusively asserted? That the impossibility of finding correct positions implies that people should never be confrontational? That asserting there is a single “truth” to find betrays arrogance?

    That’s a lot of new-age waffle. There is a reality out there, and it is possible to get accurate information on that reality. For example, homeopathy is nonsense, and a “side” affirming it works is flat-out wrong. Cognitive biases make it difficult to obtain the correct answer (which sometimes is “we don’t know”, and always includes “to the best of our knowledge”), but they do not cause all answers to be equivalent, and neither do they make obtaining accurate information on reality impossible. There is no reason to accept public policy based on nonsense (see Steven Novella’s latest post on homeopathy), and we should stand firm on such issues (and you are free to feel this is “confrontational”).

    Human values, preferences and choices are subjective, and cannot be decide by science (though some choices can be more effective, and some preferences and values are shared by more people, or even a large majority, and this can be ascertained by a scientific approach). In such matters, we should all be tolerant of each other’s opinions, choices, values and preferences.

    Finally, asserting there is a single “truth” betrays ignorance, and ignorant people are often arrogant.

  24. Bill Openthalton 24 Apr 2014 at 7:12 pm

    tmac57, Bruce –

    Thanks for the thumbs up. Your approving words made my day.

  25. ccbowerson 24 Apr 2014 at 8:31 pm

    steven johnson

    I will respong to your loaded questions:

    “It is usually reported that people with strong convictions who confront opposing arguments against their cherished opinions simply intensify their commitment.”

    That seems to be true for certain topics, and in the short term, but I am not sure that such a reaction holds over time nor for all subjects. In other words, I would be careful coming up with broad-brush conclusions from that idea above. If you are arguing “don’t be a jerk,” then fine – I try not to be one, but if you are arguing for tiptoing around others to avoid their ideologies, that’s not going to happen – and it shouldn’t. Bad ideas should be challenged, albeit at the appropriate situations.

    “Do skeptics assert that this is true? That it is not just an artifact produced by reluctance to concede in an argument? A product of the fallacy fallacy, i.e., the illogical conclusion that finding one error refutes a complex argument? That there is no such thing as a “gotcha” argument?”

    I’m not sure your point in this series of questions, but “skeptics” are not a monolithic group, and you will come across all sorts of ideas and opinions on various topics. I agree that a refusal to concede an arugment is directly related to a committment to that argument, and I agree that finding a flaw in the argument does not make the conclusion false. But… a conclusion based upon fallacious arguments is not worth much. Correcting the fallacious thinking is an important step to reevaluating the argument. Again what is your point, and who thinks otherwise?

    “Also, do skeptics deny on principle that one “side” may be proven wrong, given the cognitive biases? That no single answer can be conclusively asserted? That the impossibility of finding correct positions implies that people should never be confrontational? That asserting there is a single “truth” to find betrays arrogance?”

    This is a poorly applied post modernist argument. Just because we cannot assert facts with 100% certainty does not mean that all perspective are equal, nor does it mean that we cannot rule out certain perspectives that do not correlate with our observations. We can, and should, go with what fits best with what we can gather from our observations and experiments and application of reason.

    Cognitive biases and fallacious thinking do not mean that we cannot conclude anything from our observations, because the more we know about those biases, the more we can control for them and take them into account. If these were actually detrimental to our understanding of anything, then science would have been a failure, rather than the great success it has been thus far. It is in no small part the controlling and removing of known biases, which has allowed for the success of science.

    I also disagree with the idea that people should never be confrontational. That clearly depends on the person(s) and situations. I think it is important to think through the situation, and what your objective is in the confrontation. I think most of the time the confrontation is ruled out in that analysis, but not always.

  26. BillyJoe7on 25 Apr 2014 at 5:28 am

    Bill,

    Firstly, yes, good one: “Why spoil a tasty opinion with bitter facts?” is a lot pithier than the tired old: “You are entitled to your opinion, but not your facts”
    But I think you go too far with this:

    “we should all be tolerant of each other’s opinions, choices, values and preferences”

    There are many opinions, choices, values, and preferences to which I would not hesitate to show no tolerance, and certainly no respect. Those based on intolerance (of blacks, women, or homosexuals) for example. Those espoused by sociopaths and psychopaths. Many religious values that the bearer has simply inherited unquestioningly.

  27. Bill Openthalton 25 Apr 2014 at 6:47 am

    BillyJoe7 –

    There are many opinions, choices, values, and preferences to which I would not hesitate to show no tolerance, and certainly no respect. Those based on intolerance (of blacks, women, or homosexuals) for example. Those espoused by sociopaths and psychopaths. Many religious values that the bearer has simply inherited unquestioningly.

    It is unquestionably very difficult to be tolerant of opinions, choices, values and preferences one does not agree with. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to affirm with any degree of certitude that ours are better. We do not have to engage with such people, and as long as they show the same tolerance for preferences, values, choices and opinions they dislike, it is a viable approach to living together.

    The biggest problem is to all agree that constructions like religion, political orientation, freely chosen interactions between consenting adults, etc. are just a matter of personal opinion. It is easy for more liberal (in the US sense) people to agree that sexual orientation is a personal matter, than to accept that certain couples might want to live by traditional religious gender roles. Reverse this for conservatives :)

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